Federal Agencies Join With Watchdog Group To Scrutinize Pipeline

Jul 21, 2014

graph showing ozone concentration in Canyonlands
Ozone concentration in Southern Utah National Parks has some citizens worried about the construction of a new gas pipeline.

The growing oil field, along the entrance to the Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands, became more controversial when citizens learned that Moab city water is being used for drilling, and then a well leaked oil all the way to the Green River. Now a new network of pipelines and a gas compressor plant have sparked a citizen watchdog group that has raised safety and environmental concerns. I talked to Bill Love, a member of the Canyon Country Coalition for Pipeline Safety.  

“The Park Service is worried about air quality in the park. The Park Service has set up a Denver office that I’m now working with, a complete division on air quality. Since then the Park Service has discovered that Fidelity does not have an air quality permit on the gas plant. Nobody knew about it. It’s down from the airport, and hidden away on Blue Hill Road. And the state will be coming in to Moab, to look at what’s going on and see what permits are necessary for Fidelity to operate the pipeline,” Love said.

In recent years, ozone levels in Arches and Canyonlands have averaged close to the legal EPA limit, and they exceed the limit several times a year. Some studies say there is no such thing as a safe ozone level, and it’s expected that federal standards will soon be stricter. Utah officials say they have only recently learned that the new gas plant is being constructed, and if they decide an air quality permit is required, it could trigger expensive retrofitting of air quality equipment and controls.
Meanwhile, citizen concerns about alleged shoddy pipeline construction have attracted the attention of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or “PHMSA,” which has identified “deficiencies” and concerns about quality control. Love says Fidelity Exploration, the company operating the oil field, and WBI, the construction contractor, want to get out of promises they made.

“Fidelity has asked the BLM to remove a majority of safety regulations on the pipeline. The thing is, the BLM promised the public in the EA that although it was not officially regulated, they would build it as a transmission line, and meet all of the high qualifications,” he said.

In recent months, the Moab office of the BLM has worked extensively with concerned citizens and with state and federal regulators, to mitigate the impacts of the oil and gas operations, including holding up construction for cultural surveys, and for nesting raptors. I talked to Lisa Bryant, assistant manager of the Moab Field Office of the BLM.

“This is an unregulated pipeline. And so in response to concerns for safety, the company committed to building this pipeline to standards that would be above those that would normally be required for a gas gathering line,” Bryant said.

Those standards are already considered lax, and due to be replaced soon by new federal rule making. Bryant says in the mean time the BLM is committed to work with citizens and other regulators to make Fidelity live up to its promises.

“Fidelity and WBI have both offered to provide certification data for all their welders, all the x-ray information. They have been doing testing of all of their welds, significant documentation of each and every weld,” she said. “And at the end of the project, prior to going into operation, all of that will be provide to the BLM for review. And if we don’t have the experts in house to help us with that, we will make sure that we get them.”

Bryant says the request by the oil company to eliminate safety standards is understandable.

“What they were trying to say is, we’re overbuilding this pipeline; we’re making a really strong, really good pipeline. This is a very, very thick pipe, very high-grade, much more than actually would be required for the pressures that are going to be going through the pipe. One of the reasons for making the larger diameter is that it helps because you got bigger volume, lower pressure. That’s an added safety feature. And as a result of responding to some public comments during the environmental assessment process, they said ‘we’ll build this to transmission line standards,’ and in a sense those two things are not compatible,“ Bryant said.

While it’s become more likely that the pipeline will be safe, Love is skeptical about long-term monitoring of the I-Sky oilfield.

“The BLM is very hesitant to take up any future maintenance observations on this well. The state’s not going to do it,” Love said. “Of course the county council, based on the letters they are sending on the master leasing plan, have never seen a bad well. They’re not interested in monitoring this facility. We’re asking that we do an EIS on this whole area for cumulative impact.”

Love says all the Moab pipeline data has been sent to federal rule makers, and might be used as an example of what new rules should be made in the future.